Rhetoric for fun and profit. Variant: God is in the grammar.
Around here at Good&Happy we have more than one old-fashioned English major, as well as practitioners of neurolinguistic programming. We entertain awe for the effects of all kinds of rhetorical device, word choice, sentence structure, figures of speech, rhythm, verb tense, the formal and informal elements of discourse. As one of the pioneers of NLP famously notes, there's a big difference between, "(s)he's ugly, but rich;" and "(s)he's rich, but ugly."
Star scholar Stanley Fish, dean emeritus at the University of Illinois at Chicago, clearly no running dog in the pocket of President Bush, puts his famous post-modern analytical fascination with "the developing responses of the reader in relation to the words as they succeed one another in time" to work on excerpts from the two presidential candidates' speeches.
His freshman writing students were instructed to set aside their political preferences and attend only to the articulation of the candidates' positions. They complained about John F. Kerry's Sept. 8 Greensboro, N. C. speech, finding it "skippy," "confusing," too-informal. Forget flip-flops over a period of time. Fish shows where one argument skittishly changes direction in the space of three short sentences.
Prof. Fish's freshmen declared themselves more satisfied by George W. Bush's speech delivered the same day in Missouri, having as it did the staples of freshman composition--a topic sentence, sequential argument in support of the topic, euphony, parallelism, a conclusion.
Rhetoric carries a moral undertone. Lies, ad hominem attacks, and misdirection via logical fallacies are obvious violations of moral life in a society. "Freshman composition" excellences are subtler. The tools of rhetoric offer landmarks, shared handholds, signals about intention, so that the listener or reader neither suffers uncomfortable and distancing confusion, nor feels stupid.
This kind of rhetoric is not flattery, nor high-falutin', nor something extra and decorative. It's respect. Even equality. And it usually takes work.
Friends of the Democratic campaign have been urging a "message." Fish's New York Times piece gives a pattern suitable to dress it for prime time.
UPDATE September 26--In light of today's New York Times, maybe the Kerry Rhetorical Style is Socratic.
At meetings, Mr. Kerry poses contrarian questions in an often wandering quest for data and conflicting opinions, a style that his aides, sometimes with a roll of the eyes, call Socratic.
Gov. Edward G. Rendell of Pennsylvania says he advised Senator Kerry about the value of brevity in speeches, especially to outdoor audiences.
"I've given up," Mr Rendell said. "He listens sometimes, and he doesn't listen sometimes."
Socrates, incidentally, is remembered for maintaining while submitting to his own capital punishment that an individual citizen—even when wronged by the state—can never justifiably refuse to obey the laws of the state.
Ethics, the principles that guide right conduct, is not a prominent ingredient in the modern understanding of happiness.
Servais Pinckaers' The Sources of Christian Ethics (English translation 1995) sets out to salvage the idea of ethics as psychologically practical. What is the real tenor of Thou shalt not, when it echoes through our contemporary Dionysian and Romantic-tinted cultures? Are ethical codes dreary outdated constraints bruising our tender vital flesh, imprisoning the compliant and gullible via heavy fruitless moral obligations, inhibiting the masses for easy exploitation by the malevolent, the venal, and the powerful, whose force is bent toward binding with briars
my joys & desires?
Is William Blake's rhythmic accusation true? Where is he wrong, or shortsighted, or only partial in this ringing condemnation? And how can we decide? Since it is almost certainly the case that our relationship to our own ethical choices affects our happiness -- at the moment, over a lifetime, and, some religious would say, filling frames larger and longer than we could imagine by creating character which goes beyond any one human life.
How did ethics earn such a bad rap?
What are the ethics of discussing ethics?
How might we come to appreciate ethics as "the science of happiness and the ways that lead thereto"? (Pinckaers, ch. 2 sec. 2, The Question of Happiness)
They will probably arise again, these questions.
It is not of course the only, or even the most important aspect, of happiness. Nor is it a subject that is easy to discuss with freshness and simplicity. Nonetheless, ethics may have some wisdom to offer from the the back row, because it has been more or less ignored in the modern consideration of individual happiness.